Opinion: The results are in — there is an ingrained bias in academia against conservatives

Christopher Dummitt & Zachary Patterson: A new report finds that 73 per cent of Canadian social science and humanities academics identify as being on the left, compared to just four per cent who identify with the right

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A report released this week shows clear evidence of a significant political slant in Canadian (along with American and British) universities. The report finds that 73 per cent of Canadian social science and humanities academics identify as being on the left, compared to just four per cent who identify with the right. This makes universities substantially more politically skewed than the general population.

The report, by the U.S.-based Centre for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, suggests that the over-representation of left-wing views in universities creates an environment in which structural discrimination against conservative perspectives is pervasive. While it found that individuals on both the left and the right are equally willing to discriminate based on politics (a finding that matches other studies), the overwhelming dominance of left-of-centre faculty members at universities means that this primarily affects conservative academics.


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A majority of conservative academics in the social sciences and humanities report a hostile work climate. In order to avoid discrimination and negative social repercussions, conservative academics regularly censor their ideas and their research. The report also suggests that one reason universities are so heavily skewed to the left is because conservatives self-select out of academia to avoid this hostile climate.

These findings should not be news to anyone familiar with previous studies on the subject. But the report’s inclusion of Canadian data is novel. The Canadian survey numbers are relatively small — and there is clearly a need for more research — but the consistency of findings across many Western countries and over a number of distinct studies, all of which find similar results, suggests that this is a widespread problem. Policymakers in this country should take notice.

This isn’t just about individual victims of discrimination — although that surely matters, too. It is also about how the problem of political discrimination prevents universities from fulfilling their basic role of creating reliable knowledge and educating people in how to produce and evaluate such knowledge.

Given our natural tendencies towards confirmation bias (finding evidence for what we already believe), the reliability of knowledge production is a function of having ideas challenged by those of different political persuasions. Peer review is supposed to do exactly that; to hold knowledge claims and research to rigorous evaluation and scrutiny.


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But the strong leftward tilt, especially in the humanities and social sciences, means that this likely isn’t happening. A great deal of work in these disciplines will never face scrutiny by scholars with different political convictions. As a result, it won’t be tested in the most vigorous fashion. This is because there are so few conservatives in universities and also because conservatives who are in academia are much more likely to self-censor.

This tendency, if left unchecked, should alarm people of all political persuasions. If universities continue to be dominated by only one part of the political spectrum, a large section of the population will have good reason to feel that their views are not being represented. This could represent an existential problem to universities themselves, leading to greater political polarization, diminished support for universities and distrust in the veracity of academic research.

What can we do to fix this problem? The report briefly touches on two kinds of solutions. The first is the traditional liberal approach of promoting a multiplicity of political viewpoints and creating a climate that’s opposed to political discrimination.

This is undoubtedly useful, but it is unlikely that these approaches will suffice on their own. There is little incentive for those within the system, who benefit from the skewed representation, to change it. Additional regulatory efforts will likely be needed.


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The United Kingdom could serve as a model. There, the government recently created an “academic freedom champion” to sit on the U.K. universities regulator and ensure that institutes of higher learning are adhering to the rules around academic freedom. It has the power to hear cases and impose fines on institutions that are found to be discriminatory. Canadian provinces should consider adopting a similar model.

The federal government should also act. The tri-council granting agencies (CIHR, SSHRC and NSERC) should ensure that research is subjected to scrutiny from opposing political perspectives. Universities should not create whole programs or advertise particular jobs that have a built-in political bias from the outset. Instead, universities should be required to create neutral environments where the ultimate objective is not a particular political aim, but the truth.

The precise way we tackle the problem of political discrimination in universities should be carefully chosen, and more in-depth research is needed in Canada. But the stakes are high, and this new report clearly demonstrates the need for reform.

National Post

Christopher Dummitt is a professor of Canadian history at Trent University. Zachary Patterson is an associate professor of geography at Concordia University.


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